History should be a black comedy, not a morality tale
Give us the banter, not a lecture
I love history; it is my greatest passion. If I didn’t have to worry about money I’d go and live in a former Templar castle in the Languedoc and spend my afternoons reading 19th-century French historians (pretending to read in the original for my Instagram account, obviously, but actually using a translation).
From a very young age I was obsessed with the subject. The first history tale I remember being engrossed by was the story of Ethelred the Unready and Edward the Martyr. I suppose I felt some sort of nominative solidarity with Edward, the rightful king murdered by a wicked stepmother who then put her own son Ethelred on the throne — and who turned out to be the worst combination of both useless and backstabbing.
Of course, I later learned that the story was more complicated; Edward may not have been murdered, and Ethelred was dealt a very difficult hand. But as a child it sent my mind away to a far off place in a similar way that King Arthur first captured the imagination of many others. Like them, I was first attracted to history via the medieval world, with its kings, castles and sword fights, and its colourful jousts where fair maidens watched heroic knights beat the crap out of each other (although the early medieval had almost none of those things, but again, don’t let that ruin the fun).
There was obviously a very nerdy aspect to this. From nine or so I could memorise all the dates of the kings and queens of England (although I got a bit vague when it got as far as the Edwys and Edwigs), all of which proved hugely useful when it came to impressing the opposite sex in my teens.
Dates are not the most important thing, but for a certain type of mind they make it easier to connect everything. If I learned of an insane pope who liked to torture his cardinals or ‘Wenzel the Drunkard’, the German king fond of throwing enemies off bridges, I could put it in context that this was the time of Richard II, and it is easier to place. If I’m now reading about Chinese emperors or what was happening in the Umayyad caliphate, where the connection with England would be slim or non-existent, my understanding of English dates still makes it easier to understand.
I loved the fantasy and the expanded sense of imagination, but as I got older, I came to better appreciate the most beautiful thing about history, that it’s all one great black comedy, filled with petty emotions and motivations, and the psychodrama and human absurdity is not some side issue, but the whole point.
Yet the subject is never really taught like that, and perhaps can’t be; and the national history curriculum when I was at school seemed structured in such a way as to suck all the life out of it. It’s not just the incoherence or emphasis; everyone complains about what is taught at school, and no one will ever be satisfied. But worse was the way the subject was almost designed to make it as boring as possible. An area of study was introduced, and then almost immediately we were asked to evaluate the primary and secondary sources; the aim was to invite scepticism, but most teens and pre-teens simply drift off at this point.
Just tell us the story — we can deconstruct it later. Personally, I feel that history shouldn’t be primarily an analysis of how hegemonic power structures orchestrate public relations; it shouldn’t be a morality tale about good and evil; it shouldn’t be a means to make society more inclusive; it should be fun, and when done correctly, it’s the most fun subject in the world.
That, of course, explains the popularity of The Rest is History. Like The Times’s James Marriott, I have come to a point of obsession with the Tom Holland-Dominic Sandbrook podcast. It’s a companion when I’m in a hotel room alone, or flying, or just doing the dishes; it’s probably the highlight of my week, and I’m not sure what that says about me.
Holland likes to joke that they’re ‘all about the ‘bantz’, but as Marriott says, much of the popularity is due to the podcast not treating its audience like idiots. They obviously have the advantage of being free from corporate pressure, so they don’t have to worry about audience demographics, about ‘access’ and relevance, all the factors that have helped drag down the IQ of regular documentary making, because everyone feels that they have to both a) appeal to da kidz and b) fulfil the political obsessions of the deeply America-brained British ruling class. Ironically, or perhaps not, The Rest is History does have a large number of younger listeners as a result.